Steve’s System

Written by on November 11, 2012 in News - No comments

In life there always is room for more firsts no matter how advanced or complicated day to day living has become. This month I initially thought of sharing all the firsts we were fortunate to be a part of last month, but instead my thoughts kept taking me back to a unique system we recently built for a new client under circumstances that proved more than a little profound. So here it is, another first for CelestialSounds in step with my original idea except that I am now for the very first time dedicating a complete report on one system belonging to a fortunate client whom have never before owned a high-end luxury-audio-system!

I gave my approach to this blog some careful consideration. I could have written pages of detail about this system’s range of superlatives, but these we sort-of discuss and write about everyday. In the end I decided to just tell the story since the episode in its entirety took on the form of an interesting journey that started with an inquiry about a pre-owned subwoofer! Through the system’s conception, design and eventual construction it involved discovery, commitment and enlightened thinking on both my own and that of my client’s part. It also included touring the beautiful routes of our country for several thousand kilometers collecting some of the key pieces (Audio Research DAC8) from other clients upgrading to the next level. While driving the time allowed the outlines of my ideas to develop colorful depth and in the process became a noteworthy audio system with all the correct ingredients. My client’s sophisticated but unspoiled idea of an ideal musical experience allowed my creative skills free reign. Sadly it is very uncommon for an individual interested in luxury sound to not have previously been contaminated by an industry scattered with know-it-alls pushing boxes instead of finding individual solutions to real musical bliss. For this client it is all about the music, the artists’ abilities and experiencing these as authentically as possible in the comfort of their own home. When sound is about the music, my inspiration soars and this system therefore stands as testimony of the elevated levels of musical ecstasy achievable when no preconceived ideas exist.

After our first introduction my preferred system-outline for this client involved vacuum-tubes and from there-on we never deviated from this ideal. Beginning with rough sketches to an eventual painting developing on raw canvas, my mind’s eye could simply see no other shape or form when considering what it is the client was seeing in his dreams. Steve’s system had to have vacuum-tubes for sheer musical beauty and the touching experience they guarantee to enrich reproduced music with. Tubes are expensive and my initial idea could have been a little over the top for a first time buyer, but within our budget happened to have been available a perfect set of pre-owned amplifiers from our large range of trade-in stock that made all-tube-amplification-on-a-budget a reality. They also had enough power to satisfy a prerequisite design goal I always aim for. As it is the room is huge and together with the sophisticated music-tastes requirements dictated that I needed to provide plenty of spare headroom. At this advanced level options are important and healthy power delivery always open doors to more loudspeaker possibilities later. Once we then settled on the pristine set of Audio Research VTM200 mono-block amplifiers, the rest of the system’s outlines quickly started shaping around them.

The most natural partner to an Audio Research valve power-amplifier is the Audio Research Reference preamplifier. Their complimenting synergy is but one reason to aim for such combination. The unique zero-feedback vacuum-tube gain-stage for ultimate musical expressiveness is another. Any model from the extensive range will do as long as it is a Reference 3 and up and this was indeed where we kicked off. An affordable pre-owned Audio Research REF3 is probably the most economic ticket to reference quality tube pre-amplification the market has to offer. It is only when considering its younger brethren in the form of REF5 and REF5SE (when available) that the choice of preamp becomes a somewhat more complicated affair. Again considering the sheer beauty of music when reproduced well, we leaned toward the latest Audio Research Reference 5SE of which I had in stock the only example in the country. That the promise of the 5SE’s sonic delicacy overthrew all real-world logic to this more than vividly developing system-picture, is no speculation. This preamp is a game-changer (and indeed changed our game) in a world where the term is seeing increasing application to even the not-so-noteworthy as efforts to gain valuable respect often override fair-play. At the opposite end the Audio Research REF5SE is unfortunately also the nitrous-injection button to predetermined Hi-Fi budgets blowing them apart completely and forcing the proverbial mind-shift to accept new levels of a game that ultimately has no ceiling. One-sixty big-ones for the preamp make two-hundred for loudspeakers all the more acceptable and proportionally correct…

Indeed when I arrived at my client’s residence with these exotic amplifiers in my car that Thursday evening in Port-Elizabeth, talks quickly turned to the suitability of the now somewhat dwarfed capabilities of his otherwise quite acceptable KEF Reference loudspeakers. How would they stack up in this elite company? Would they compliment or take away from the exceptional possibilities the Audio Research Reference electronics held? With such competence in the engine-room my thoughts were long already aimed at recreating a recent experience of massive musical scale, lifelike proportion and sheer sonic bliss. This system needed that magic flavor and no other… Those who read my posts regularly will know what loudspeaker my mind was set on here. It was no other than the Sonus Faber Elipsa Red Violin Special Edition and its almost magically engaging sound we were treated to at the memorable re-launch I reported on last month. There the Elipsa SE’s filled a gigantic convention hall of the Hyatt Regency Hotel at Ou-Baai with music as real as the real-thing itself. This client’s room, equipment and music preferences were just begging for these distinct Sonus Faber Violins to enter the equation. It just had to happen…

Upon inquiry the next morning it turned out the exact pair of loudspeakers that spoilt us at the re-launch were still available locally. My excitement must have shown and it undoubtedly rubbed off onto my client who then placed an almost immediate order. During the course of that Friday afternoon our local distributor of Sonus Faber loudspeakers made the kind of efforts to get the speakers delivered to us, that if all service excellence in South-Africa was up to this level, our country would have been a world leader on all fronts! Through what appeared to have been our Sandy on that Friday, an LDV was chartered for a dedicated delivery arriving on our doorstep that evening at twenty minutes past six on a 700km round trip through the stormiest weather the Eastern Cape has seen in years. We were more than a little delighted (and relieved!) seeing those gigantic boxes with “Precision Musical Instrument” printed on them appear from the van.

With the Elipsa’s in the house we were now in possession of a select range of components that together formed the foundation of a system with near perfect complimentary elements. I knew with the Elipsa SE’s this system’s journey would be very close to complete. With their high sensitivity of 91dB and relatively uncomplicated load characteristics they would perfectly suit the 200Watts of valve-power we had in store for them. I also knew their uncanny ability to produce a huge room-filling sound would be a perfect match for my client’s listening room with typical dimensions of those large gentleman’s estates dating back to the previous century. Of course and perhaps very importantly the Elipsa SE is one of the very first models from Sonus Faber since the sale of the company to the international Fine Sounds group of which Audio Research became another member not so long ago. Factory matched voicing… Here we go!

With nearly six meters between them the Elipsa SE’s threw a soundstage as big as I’ve heard in a private residence yet they focused in the center like a mini-monitor-setup in typical near field studio alignment. I loved it from the very first few notes Suzanne Vega sang from “Tom’s Diner” off her “Solitude Standing” album I always start off with when beginning setup and speaker placement. Right off the bat her tone was as I came to know it in the best systems I’ve heard. From there-on forwards we were captivated until the early hours of the next morning with musical delicacy one after the other. The system required minimal setup and minimal tweaking to provide a level of performance of awe inspiring perspective. It simply made music as if the music was there in the room not played through a Hi-Fi set. Typical audiophile queues were all there, but never at the expense of the greater picture which is the music and the emotional connection that music should be making with its audience. This system simply has soul and plenty of it too. It does what I value the highest in musical terms by reaching in and touching the souls of those in the listening area hearing it make music as if it’s not reproducing that music at all.

It won’t be fair to the system or anybody reading this report to not mention that we indeed crossed the t’s and dotted the i’s in its more detailed design parameters. We did do the dedicated mains-feed complete with Hi-Fi Tuning Cryo mains-fuse as breaker at the head-end and the complimentary Furutech US wall-outlet-socket by the system. Power is supplied via a Transparent Reference power-cord into the Reference Power Isolator unit from the same company connecting all electronics again via their Premium power-cords. A dedicated mains-spur with all Transparent power cords and mains conditioning make more difference than most of the expensive speaker cables and interconnects the market has to offer and we all know these alone can cost more than this entire system!

We used fairly economic speaker cables and interconnects. Nothing fancy and far from extraordinary, again some Transparent Cables costing R20K for the speakers and some interesting interconnects from UK-based Townsend Audio all balanced XLR’s costing a mere R12K for two sets. There however is a definitive lesson in the way this system turned out when considering its superlative performance from what appears to be a platform of relative economic scale. Those who know me well will know one of my favorite lines: “Get the fundamentals right first and the rest will fall into place seemingly all by itself.” This fundamental design principle and outlook to sound-system-design could not have been more appropriate than in this system. Some will be shocked to learn that at the front-end we are using a humble NAD M55 multi-format disc-player found to be an outstanding machine from a digital-output perspective feeding external DACs. It allows high quality playback of all audiophile formats such as DVD-A and SACD as well as DVD-Video for those lovely live concerts not yet available on Blu-Ray.

A reference quality multi-format stereo music and video system then with sonic abilities the most sophisticated surround-sound systems can only dream of… What more can one possibly ask for?

About the Author

Audio Engineer, Critic & Retailer twenty years in the making.

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